While M. Karunanidhi is not battling anti-incumbency, the aiadmk has gained substantial ground compared to its lacklustre performance in 1996. Observes cpi state unit secretary R. Nallakannu: "In 1996, the mood was decisively against Jayalalitha. In many constituencies, her candidates were stopped from campaigning. But this time there is no such anger."
The dmk had hoped that Jayalalitha's disqualification would demoralise the aiadmk front. Indeed, state law minister Alladi Aruna had predicted that like a headless army, Jayalalitha's cadre would be in total disarray. But the aiadmk cadre have taken the election as a 'do-or-die' battle. In many places, the lower-level functionaries have stopped their bickering and are putting up a united show.
The dmk's poll strategists are trying to emulate the Chandrababu Naidu technique of seeking votes for performance. Karunanidhi harps on this at every election rally. "Unlike the aiadmk regime of 1991-96, when development work came to a standstill and the government machinery was used purely for pecuniary gains, the dmk government has implemented most of its election promises. Indeed, we may be the only party to take our manifesto seriously. Right from flyovers to desilting of rivers, our work is visible."
But the corruption and inefficiency at the local bodies' level negates the state government's performance. Nearly two-thirds of the local bodies are controlled by the dmk. Observes Tamil Maanila Congress (tmc) general secretary Peter Alphonse: "The grassroots-level inefficiency and apathy of elected members are working against the dmk. Most of them are corrupt and their corruption is visible. In a sense, their corruption makes a mockery of the dmk's plank of anti-corruption against Jayalalitha."
Beyond the question of policies and performance lies the question of electoral arithmetic. The dmk has lost three of its allies from the 1999 Lok Sabha polls—the pmk, mdmk and trc. While the trc has no base, the pmk, which has substantial Vanniyar support, has joined hands with the aiadmk. And the mdmk, which has a votebase of about 4 to 5 per cent spread across the state, is contesting alone. mdmk chief Vaiko has been campaigning against the dmk. Both the dmk and aiadmk fronts claim the mdmk is going to cut into the votes of the other. Says Viduthalai Virumbi, MP and the floor leader of the dmk in Rajya Sabha: "Vaiko is attacking only the dmk. It means that he is going the split the anti-dmk votes." But the aiadmk's claim is contrary. Says O.S. Manian, propaganda secretary: "Vaiko has been with the dmk for nearly two years now and even today his party is a part of the nda government at Delhi. Naturally, he is going to split the nda votes." In reality, in this closely contested election, the mdmk might prove the spoilsport whichever way the results might go.
According to observers, one factor that could work against the dmk is that the tmc and the cpi were the major political parties that gave it the edge last time. Further, the cpi(m), the Congress and the pmk have thrown in their lot with Jayalalitha. The dmk, it is pointed out, has only one mainstream political party on its side—the bjp. But the dmk hopes to neutralise the mdmk and the pmk fallout by roping in the Dalit parties—the Pudiya Tamizhagam and the Dalit Panthers. Moreover, dmk leaders like M. Stalin are confident that with P. Chidambaram shifting his allegiance to the dmk front, tmc votes would move en bloc. But this could well be wishful thinking.
Chidambaram is one of the dmk's star campaigners. But his praise of the dmk's efforts at economic liberalisation has triggered off sharp protests from the trade unions. Says W.R. Varadarajan, citu national secretary: "Chidambaram and Murasoli Maran are the two champions of the new economic order. The fact that these two leaders are aggressively campaigning for the dmk-led front has alienated all sections affected by the new economic policies."
This election is an acid test for both Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha. If the former wins, it would prove all pundits wrong. As for Jayalalitha, it is a fight for survival.